Posts tagged ‘New Testament’

The Old, the New, and Andy Stanley

It’s not easy leading in a church.  And when a church has an average of almost 40,000 people a weekend in attendance, the challenges of leadership become utterly unique.  Yet, these are the challenges that Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Ministries in Alpharetta, Georgia, is faced with on a day-to-day basis.  In this church are not only people who are firm in their faith, but people who are questioning faith or even people who have no faith at all – at least in Jesus.

Reaching people who are on the outskirts of faith is Andy Stanley’s passion and a big motivating factor behind why he wrote his latest book, Irresistible.  In it, he explains:

The decline of Christianity in America, the popularity of the New Atheists, and the meteoric rise of the nones underscore something that’s been true for generations but didn’t matter much until now.  Modern, mainstream Christianity is fatally flawed.  These flaws make it fragile and indefensible in the public square. (17)

Stanley’s desire is to make Christianity defensible and, as the title of his book declares, even irresistible to a modern’s ears.  It is a noble desire and one which he and I share.  Indeed, I have learned a lot from Stanley and have a great deal of respect for him and for all he has given the church-at-large.  I do, however, have some concerns with – and have received some questions about – his book.  His central claim, in his own words, is that:

…our current versions of the Christian faith need to be stripped of a variety of old covenant leftovers … We are dragging along a litany of old covenant concepts and assumptions that slow us down, divide us up, and confuse those standing on the outside peering in. (92)

In other words, out with the Old (Testament), and in with the New (Testament).

Stanley does not lack boldness in his proposal.  He claims:

The church fathers…immediately went to work harmonizing the old covenant with the new to make it play nice with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.  The reinterpreted, allegorized, and rebranded them to make them line up with developing Christian thought and theology. (155)

The church fathers are certainly not infallible.  Some of their interpretative moves are questionable.  But to dismiss their collective wisdom on how the Old and New Testaments work together in favor of some long-lost insight you have just recently discovered strikes me as awfully dangerous.  Stanley goes on:

The church fathers’ primary interest in the Jewish Scriptures was neither historical nor cultural.  Their primary interest was Christological.  They were convinced the Jews did not recognize and thus accept Jesus as Messiah because they didn’t know how to interpret their own prophets.  No surprise, the church fathers had little interest in the interpretation of Jewish Scriptures.  So they went looking for Jesus.

And they found Him.

Everywhere.  (155)

This is true.  The church fathers did have a habit of finding Jesus under every rock.  Kind of like the apostle Paul:

The Israelites all ate the same spiritual food  and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.  (1 Corinthians 10:3-4)

Wait.  What?  Christ was with the Israelites in the desert as they wandered on their way to the Promised Land?  If you believe Paul, He was.  The church fathers were simply doing what Paul had already done.

It is also true that the church fathers thought the Jews did not know how to interpret their own Scriptures.  Kind of like Jesus:  “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me” (John 5:46).  Maybe the church fathers were on to something.

Stanley makes other questionable claims about why we should unhitch our faith from the old covenant.  For instance, he argues that the Old Testament has no real concept of life after death:

If you asked an ancient Jew how one could know for sure they were going to heaven, they may have responded by asking you what made you think anybody went to heaven.  Most ancient Jews didn’t believe in an afterlife.  Why?  Their Scriptures didn’t assume one.  In the Old Testament, when people died, it was assumed they went to Sheol.  But Sheol wasn’t an actual place.  It was the term used to describe the realm of the dead. (165)

It seems as though Stanley may have conflated “going to heaven when you die” with any kind of an afterlife.  Just because ancient Jews didn’t necessarily believe in “going to heaven when you die” doesn’t mean they didn’t believe in an afterlife.  Many of them – indeed, most of them – believed in a resurrection from death after death, à la the prophet Daniel:

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.  (Daniel 12:2)

In fact, the resurrection was a major bone of contention between two religious groups in Jesus’ day:  the Pharisees, who did believe in a resurrection, and the Sadducees, who did not (cf. Acts 23:8).  So, I’m not sure how my promise of a resurrection from Jesus is better than the promise of a resurrection in Daniel.  They’re the same promise.  Probably because they were made by the same God.

Stanley spends a great deal of time arguing that Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, and others argued that it was time for the old covenant to go.  But is this really what they argued?

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.  (Matthew 5:17-18)

Stanley comments:

What did He mean by everything?  And what happens to the law after “everything is accomplished”?  The implication is that the law might “disappear” once everything is accomplished.  And clearly Jesus was planning to be involved in the accomplishing. (108)

This is true.  But notice the timer that Jesus sets for His final accomplishment.  Everything will be accomplished when “heaven and earth disappear,” that is, on the Last Day.  When Jesus returns, we will no longer need the law’s guidelines against sin because we will be perfected from sin.  But until that time, the law still matters.  This is why Jesus continues:

Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 5:19)

Jesus then works through selected passages from the Old Testament and not only upholds them, but strengthens them.  He not only teaches against murder, He gets at the root of murder:  anger (Matthew 5:21-22).  He not only teaches against adultery, He attacks the foundation of adultery:  lust (Matthew 5:27-28).  He not only upholds the principle of not escalating violence, taking only “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth,” He encourages the de-escalation of violence, calling His disciples to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-39).

It is true that just because the Old Testament says it doesn’t mean we do it.  For example, I – and, I would guess, you – are not slaughtering and sacrificing animals in our backyards.  But this is not because the sacrificial system didn’t or doesn’t matter.  It mattered and matters supremely because of what it points to:  “the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).

Stanley is correct that, over the years, Christians have misinterpreted and misapplied many passages from the Old Testament.  In an interview with Outreach Magazine, he rattles off a catalogue of popular misuses of Old Testament passages and principles:

Some fundamentalist preachers rail about God’s judgment against America, preaching from the Hebrew prophets. Others view tsunamis as God’s punishment of Muslims, quoting texts about His judgment of “the nations.” Teenagers graduating high school end up thinking Jeremiah 29:11’s “plans to prosper you” is a promise from God straight to them, never mind the context. They’re just being quietly set up to lose their faith when that doesn’t feel like it pans out.

God’s promises to Israel are not God’s promises to Americans.  Cherry-picking our way through the Old Testament just sets us up for problems.

This is most certainly true.  But the misapplication of the Old Testament does not equate to the non-application the Old Testament.

To use Stanley’s own metaphor, what is truly needed in our application of the Old Testament is a professional cherry-picker – someone who knows what in the law continues, what in the law has been abrogated, and what in the law was never meant for us.  Thankfully, we have a professional cherry-picker.  His name is Jesus.  Ben Witherington, in his book The Indelible Image, explains it well:

Jesus, as God’s Wisdom come in person, acts with sovereign freedom when it comes to the law.  Sometimes He intensifies its demands, sometimes He sets aside its demands, sometimes He affirms its demands, sometimes He offers a new teaching that can in some cases supplement and in others supplant previous teaching.  (32)

As I have already noted, Stanley’s concern with our use of and appeal to the Old Testament is in large part an evangelical one.  The stories in the Old Testament are just so weird.  They raise so many questions and are attacked by so many scientists, philosophers, and secularists.  This is true.  But, the story of a man who rises from death is pretty weird, too.  This is why “the message of the cross is foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18).  Eventually, we’re going to have to contend with some weird stuff and believe some weird claims.

Stanley is right when he notes that, for most people, even the objections of science, philosophy, and secularism aren’t their real objections against Christianity:

For post-Christians, science, philosophy, and reason are the go-tos for worldviews and decision making.  Post Christians, especially post-Christian millennials, have low to no tolerance for faith-based answers to fact-based questions.  At the same time, like most of us, they aren’t exactly on a truth quest either.  They’re on a happiness quest.  Many walked away from faith because faith didn’t make them happy.  That’s never a presenting reason.  Nobody wants to appear that shallow.  But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find the quest for happiness plays a big role.  When faith becomes an impediment to happiness, good-bye faith.  (269)

Amen and amen.  So what’s the answer?  How do we call people who are on a happiness quest to Jesus?  By unhitching our faith from the Old Testament?  I believe the answer is in calling people to faith in Jesus like Jesus:

Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)

Wow.  How many people today would ever take Jesus up on an invitation like this?  By last count, about 2.3 billion.

Perhaps Jesus’ invitation has a power beyond our desire for happiness.



February 4, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Merry Christmas!

"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

On this Christmas Eve, I wanted to share with you a portion of a Christmas sermon from Martin Luther, dated 1521.  Interestingly, Luther never actually preached this sermon.  Rather, he wrote this sermon as part of a collection of homilies for other pastors to share with their congregations.  At this time, he also translated the New Testament into German.  Luther did this so people could read the Bible in their native tongue and pastors could faithfully preach the Bible to their congregants.

In this sermon, Luther beautifully brings out the centrality of Christmas – not just as a story that happened long ago, but as an eternity-shifting event which calls for faith.  Without faith, Christmas brings only condemnation, for the world’s Judge has arrived.  But by faith, Christmas is cause for rejoicing, for our Savior has come!

So, it is in faith that I wish you a merry Christmas!

The Gospel teaches that Christ was born for our sake and that He did everything and suffered all things for our sake, just as the angel says here: “I announce to you a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord” [Luke 2:10–11].  From these words you see clearly that He was born for us.  He does not simply say: “Christ is born,” but: “for you is he born.”  Again, he does not say: “I announce a joy,” but: “to you do I announce a great joy.” … This is the great joy, of which the angel speaks, this is the consolation and the superabundant goodness of God, that man (if he has this faith) may boast of such treasure as that Mary is his real mother, Christ his brother, and God his father.  For these things are, all of them, true and they come to pass, provided we believe them; this is the chief part and chief good in all the gospels … Christ, above all things, must become ours and we His, before we undertake good works.  That happens in no other way than through such faith; it teaches the right understanding of the gospels and it seizes hold on them in the right place.  That makes for the right knowledge of Christ; from it the conscience becomes happy, free, and contented; from it grow love and praise of God, because it is He who has given us freely such superabundant goods in Christ … Therefore see to it that you derive from the Gospel not only enjoyment of the story as such, for that does not last long.  Nor should you derive from it only an example, for that does not hold up without faith.  But see to it that you make His birth your own, and that you make an exchange with Him, so that you rid yourself of your birth and receive, instead, His.  This happens, if you have this faith. By this token you sit assuredly in the Virgin Mary’s lap and are her dear child.  This faith you have to practice and to pray for as long as you live; you can never strengthen it enough.  That is our foundation and our inheritance. (AE 52:14-16)

December 24, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Letting Jesus Pick And Choose

One of the joys I have as a pastor is being able to think through theological questions with the great folks here at Concordia. And the great folks here at Concordia aren’t afraid to ask. From questions about Christ’s work on the cross to questions about suffering to questions about heaven to questions about Hebrew and Greek, I’ve received plenty of terrific queries which have been a joy – and many times a challenge – for me to answer.

From time to time, I not only like to answer people’s questions in a meeting at my office, or on the phone, or in an email, but also on my blog, especially if it is a question that I commonly receive. And that is what I thought I’d do with this often asked question: “How does the Old Testament relate to the New Testament?  If both testaments are God’s inspired Word, then why do we insist on following some of the Old Testament’s laws like the Ten Commandments while at the same time disregarding its ceremonial and sacrificial stipulations?”   This is a good, and very complex, question!

It is true that, on the surface, it can almost seem like Christians sometimes pick and choose which Old Testament laws they would like to follow.  The one about honoring your father and mother (cf. Exodus 20:12)?  Yeah, we ought to keep that one around – especially if we have children.  The one about sprinkling a bird’s blood over a house after it has been cleansed from mildew (cf. Leviticus 14:33-57)?  We usually take a pass on that one.

So why do we follow some laws and not others?  Classically, a distinction has been made between those laws which are moral and those which are ceremonial.  Moral laws stand through both testaments.  Thus, honoring fathers and mothers, as a moral mandate, continues to hold sway over our thoughts, words, and deeds, as do all of the Ten Commandments.  Ceremonial laws, however, with all of their sacrifices and rituals, have been abrogated by Christ.  As the preacher of Hebrews writes:  “When [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God…And where [sins] have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin” (Hebrews 10:12, 18).  Following Jesus’ sacrifice, no more sacrifices are needed.  Therefore, to insist on following the Old Testament sacrificial stipulations is an affront to and a debasement of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

Finally, the reason we do not follow every Old Testament stipulation is because of the way we read our Bible.  We read every page, even the ones with all of the strange rules and regulations, through the lens of what Christ has taught, done, and fulfilled.  As Jesus Himself says, “These are the Scriptures that testify about Me” (John 5:39). Martin Luther echoes this sentiment when he writes:  “I have often said that whoever would study well the Bible, especially the spiritual significance of the histories, should refer everything to the Lord Christ” (What Luther Says 207).  Thus, we interpret and follow the Scriptures of the Old Testament the way that Christ follows and interprets the Scriptures of the Old Testament.  No Old Testament Scripture, then, is to be read apart from God’s revelation in Christ.

Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, has perhaps written the finest, most succinct statement as to how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament that I have found:  “Jesus, as God’s Wisdom come in person, acts with sovereign freedom when it comes to the law.  Sometimes He intensifies its demands, sometimes He sets aside its demands, sometimes He affirms its demands, sometimes He offers a new teaching that can in some cases supplement and in others supplant previous teaching” (The Indelible Image, vol.1, 32).  This is precisely right.  As Paul writes, “Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4).  The Greek word for “end” is telos, meaning “goal.”  Thus, the Old Testament laws find their goal in how Christ arbitrates, abrogates, interprets, and fulfills them.  You cannot read the Old Testament correctly if you do not read it with Jesus in mind.

So why do we not offer sacrifices to God when our homes are filled with mildew?  Because Christ has offered the perfect and final sacrifice for all time.  Why do we still continue to honor our parents?  Because Christ has taught us to do so (cf. Mark 7:9-13).   We let Jesus pick and choose which laws we continue to follow and which laws have been abrogated by His work on the cross. Reading the Old Testament is as simple as listening to Jesus.

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May 31, 2010 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

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